In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll admit right here that I’m a reluctant import into the world of Web 2.0 – not exactly a Luddite, but no early adopter either, not since Gmail first launched and you needed to be invited by an existing user to join.
I’m not on Facebook, I’m terrible at texting, the predominant activity I perform with my phone is talking on it, and I don’t own a smartphone (or rather, don’t own the corresponding data plan required to boost my phone’s intelligence quotient) because
a) I don’t want to pay for it, and
b) I couldn’t conceivably fit any more computing time into my day
I already spend all day online at work, and then come home and run my laptop until it’s time for bed. The last thing I need is another computer in my pocket, even though there are indeed times having one would be handy, like when I’m travelling and don’t know my way around. Then again, I also still appreciate the experience of finding a place by physically looking for it or talking to people to get directions, especially when visiting new places.
Regardless of my personal preferences, though, the world has definitely changed. My uncle, who is fast approaching his seventh decade of life, once remarked that it used to be that people never left home without a bottle of water in their hand. Now, the phone is the must-have accessory – dehydration be damned.
Although that same uncle, being a proper Englishman, is far more likely to quench his thirst with wine rather than water, to say nothing for the fact that his ancient desktop computer still connects to the internet via dialup. So he’s perhaps not the best choice of social commentator on either count, no offense to my uncle, of course.
Why, when and where?
Have you ever contemplated why you use your phone so much? Or more to the point, why do you choose to use it when you do? Why on public transit, while in line at the grocery story, while sitting on a park bench, while walking down the street, while waiting for a table at a restaurant, while waiting for anything? Why during all the times that I’m most loath to do anything at all?
As a writer, to come up with ideas, I require regular bouts of silence, and I’m certain those who practice other forms of the art have a similar need. Not just physical silence – although believe me, I’m all for that too – but informational silence as well. I need to just stop taking in data for a while to mull over what I’ve already subsumed from my 14+ hours a day of existing computing time.
I need to stare blankly at my surroundings – at other people using their phones, and other such un-stimulating sights – and just sit with myself for a bit while things percolate.
Informational silence gives way to mental silence, which is so essential to the creative process. In an article entitled “Finding Silence”, fantasy author Holly Lisle writes that,
[T]he silence we as writers must have to be productive, is silence inside ourselves. That silence travels anywhere. We carry it with us as if it were a private retreat in the mountains…. [T]his silence is hard to find and hard to hold. It is as elusive as a rainbow, as easily shattered as sugar glass, as rare as a white stag, as skittish as a wild colt…. The search for your characters’ voices and your story’s action and the truth of the world that you are building begins in the silence of your mind.
She goes on to advocate meditation as a means of capturing this silence. For me, unplugging for a little while and forcing my brain to create its own entertainment is practically a meditation in itself. According to Irish TV writer Graham Linehan (whom I quoted in my previous post from his recent CBC Radio interview, which runs from 42:45 to 48:56),
If you stop your brain from amusing itself, it will desperately try and do anything to have a good time, so boredom is kind of a useful tool [for creativity].
Thus do these utterly boring periods of enforced idleness that arise throughout a normal day become opportunities to write while not writing: to think about my novel-in-progress – about upcoming scenes, and scenes already written that can improved, or whether my characters are remaining true to their character traits – or about future novels I’d like to write, or future blog posts.
The possibilities, as they say, are endless.
Your brain on technology
Beyond the chance to put in more story time, another good reason to sit with yourself every now and then is to ensure you don’t altogether lose the ability to do so. In that same CBC Radio interview, Graham Linehan went on to discuss the possibility that people’s technology use might be having large-scale implications upon our capacity for creative thought. He said,
There was a really great quote: Someone said that because of the internet, the human race may be losing its ability to create things like the internet. I do wonder sometimes whether that’s true. I wonder whether the deep commitment and immersion that you used to be able to have in things – I wonder whether that’s even possible anymore. And I think you do need deep immersion to create things like the internet, or a novel, or a film, or whatever it happens to be.
This isn’t the first I’ve heard of this notion. Startup entrepreneur and Google Ventures Partner Joe Kraus has spoken and written on this issue. Specifically, he claims that,
We are creating and encouraging a culture of distraction where we are increasingly disconnected from the people and events around us, and increasingly unable to engage in long-form thinking. People now feel anxious when their brains are unstimulated. We are losing some very important things by doing this. We threaten the key ingredients behind creativity and insight by filling up all our ‘gap’ time with stimulation.
This is a relatively new area of brain research that has also been written about by technology and culture writer Nicholas Carr (The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains) and California State University psychology professor Dr. Larry Rosen (Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and How They Learn and iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming It’s Hold On Us).
Finding a fine balance
The point of the post is not to be anti-internet or anti-social media, anti-smartphone, anti- getting caught up on online tasks when you’ve got an idle moment, or anti- amusing yourself when you’re bored. Indeed, the internet with its vast amount of information, photos, videos, resources, and people can be exceedingly inspirational for writers. It certainly is for me.
But so too is just turning it all off sometimes and forcing my brain to make its own fun. If you’ve never tried it, I highly recommend it. You never know what sort of novel – pun partially intended – entertainment your mind might dream up for you.
(A/N: This post is in honour of the iPhone 5 and the fervour its recent release has caused world-wide.)
- Joe Kraus – “We Are Creating a Culture of Distraction” (blog post and imbedded video presentation)
- “Really?” – Windows Phone ad (linked for the images of common modern phone usage, not to promote the Windows Phone as any better or any worse than any existing smartphone)
- CBC Radio – “Boredom as a Creativity Kick Starter” (interview with Graham Linehan from August 18, 2012: Day 6 Episode 91, 42:45 to 48:56)